Mayor’s Staff Changes Put On Hold

Sam Gurwitt PhotoA proposal that promised to spark controversy at Monday night’s Hamden Legislative Council meeting was pulled from the agenda at the last minute —  to make changes to the mayor’s office that some say could cost around $100,000 next year.

On Jan. 31, Mayor Curt Leng sent a memo to the council explaining a bill he intended to bring to the floor at Monday’s meeting. The bill proposed to amend the 2018-2019 fiscal year budget in order to eliminate certain positions within the mayor’s office and create others in their place.

Among the proposed changes is the creation of a director of town/BOE legislative affairs to serve as liaison to the state legislature.

The changes are “really going back to a formula that has worked, and that we’ve done before and with great success,” said Director of Arts and Culture Julie Smith, who formerly served as chief of staff in the mayor’s office.

The mayor said that the town has long needed a lobbyist to advocate for Hamden in Hartford, and that the large school construction projects about to be underway will require daily oversight.

“With these needs,” he wrote in a statement the Independent, “we are looking to accomplish a reorganization that achieves these goals in the most cost effective… way.” 

While some members of the council have expressed support for the changes, others have raised concerns about spending more on personnel in the mayor’s office when the town is already running a budget shortfall for the current fiscal year. The council has been in negotiations with unions to ask for concessions, including the fire union and, on Monday evening, the supervisors union.

Council President Mick McGarry said that the mayor first began discussing the changes last spring after the tornado. Fixing the damage caused by the tornado, McGarry explained, is just one of the major projects that the town is currently working on that require proper oversight from the town’s administration.

“We have huge projects that are being done, multimillion dollar projects, and we need to make sure there’s good oversight,” necessitating the new positions, he said.

A few hours before Monday’s meeting, Leng decided to pull the item from the agenda.

“I pulled the item because we have a couple of changes planned to improve job descriptions and a funding clarification to demonstrate how the change is cost neutral,” Leng said.

“I think it would have been tabled” if the proposal had come up, said At-Large Rep. Marjorie Bonadies. “I definitely would have voted to table.” Other council members echoed Bonadies’ remarks, saying they thought the mayor knew he didn’t have the votes and had adjusted accordingly.

The Costs

The mayor has maintained that the changes would not come at an extra cost to the town.

“We worked to make sure that the changes are all covered with existing funds and that is expected both for [the] remainder of [this] fiscal year and how we planned it in anticipating the upcoming year,” Leng stated.

The cost of the proposed changes would be covered in the current fiscal year by transferring funds within the mayor’s office from other line items in the budget that have not been spent.

Council members have raised concerns about the costs for the next fiscal year, when the new positions would require pay for 12 months, rather than just for the few remaining months between now and when the current fiscal year ends on June 30.

District Nine Rep. Brad Macdowall said he is concerned that next year the changes could cost $100,000 extra. At-Large Rep. Lauren Garrett also said that the changes would be expensive in the next fiscal year.

The bill would replace the information & research officer position ($62,000) with a deputy chief of staff ($72,000). It would also create a director of town/BOE legislative affairs, whose job would be to act as a liaison to the state legislature from the town, as well as from the administration to both the Board of Education and the Legislative Council. That position would have an annual salary of $72,000, with one third funded by the town, two-thirds by the BOE.

The bill proposes to restructure the Arts and Culture Department. The department would be renamed the Arts, Culture, and Special Projects Department. The role of arts director ($90,000) would be eliminated and replaced by the town/BOE project director ($100,000). The bill would also create an arts and marketing manager position ($55,000) in the department, replacing the part-time assistant that currently works as a contractor.

Alone, the changes outlined above would add a net $147,000 to the budget next fiscal year. However, according to the mayor, there are other places not included in the language of the proposal itself where the changes would allow the town to save, offsetting any added costs.

“Funding for the reorganization is almost entirely already budgeted,” wrote Leng. “The [director of town/legislative affairs] position, the only new position, was funded in the budget process by both the Town and the Board of Education.”

According to Leng, a total of $85,000 was budgeted for the current fiscal year for lobbying work to Hartford. “I don’t believe the 85K was spent,” he wrote to the Independent. That money, according to Garrett, did not actually appear in the budget. She said that when she asked the mayor where that item was in the budget, he had replied that he wanted the funding to come from a technical account out of the mayor’s office rather than a salary line item in the budget. Indeed, no such position appears among the mayor’s office salaries in the current budget.

Beyond the money already set aside for lobbying work, the mayor was unable to provide the details of how the changes would be revenue neutral in time for the publication of this article.

At Monday evening’s council meeting, Hamden resident George Levinson got up to speak to the council during the public input session. Though he acknowledged that the mayor’s office reorganizations were no longer on the agenda, he still sought to get across his message about them.

“We all know this town is in the worst shape of any town in the state,” he said, citing last year’s budget shortfall of $9 million. “Here we go again: the first thing they want to do is make promotions for a couple of the cronies,” he continued. “Spending in this town has to be reformed… it’s time for this body to say no mas!”

Levinson’s comments echoed the concerns of many on the council about the changes. “It’s added strain on the budget during a time when we’re already running a deficit,” said Garrett. “We are creating jobs and giving out raises while asking the unions for concessions,” she added.

Indeed, limited funding has forced the town to squeeze its unions. This year’s budget included a line that anticipated that the town would be able to get $1.5 million in union concessions. The fire union was the first to come forward and negotiate, and the council passed a concessions package of $596,423. On Monday evening, the council got an additional $43,454 from the supervisors’ union for the current fiscal year (and $8,441 next year). The council must still get around $860,000 in union concessions before the fiscal year ends to fulfill the anticipated $1.5 M.

Garrett said that union representatives had planned to speak against the proposed changes to the mayor’s office, though the last-minute removal of the item from the agenda preempted any such comments. 

Lobbyist In Hartford

Both the administration and council members have said having a lobbyist in Hartford will be very important for Hamden’s future. “We trust that a dedicated Town/BOE Legislative Affairs Officer will not only pay for itself, but will bring added resources and grant opportunities so important to our Town during tight financial times,” the mayor wrote.

McGarry echoed the mayor’s sentiments, explaining that Hamden has been chronically underfunded by the state. Though it might cost more, he said, “if it works out with the lobbyist, the reorganization will pay for itself over and over again.”

The town currently pays Walter Morton, who serves on the Board of Education, to monitor policy in Hartford and act as a liaison to the state legislature. He does not serve as an employee of the town; he contracts. Under the current agreement, the town will pay him up to $3,000 for his work as a liaison to Hartford during the current legislative session. The money comes from a professional technical services line in the mayor’s budget.

With the General Assembly session already underway, explained McGarry, it would be helpful to have a fully-defined, funded role as soon as possible, hence the mayor’s decision to introduce the position in the current fiscal year rather than in the next.

Acting as liaison to the General Assembly would not be the position’s only duty. The employee would also act as a liaison between the administration and both the Legislative Council and the Board of Ed, which has peaked the concern of some council members

Majority Leader Cory O’Brien said he wanted to clarify the priorities of the position. He said he was worried about “this person being pulled in multiple ways and ultimately being set up to fail.” At times when the General Assembly is in session, it would be difficult for one person to devote the time necessary to the state legislature while also serving as a liaison to the council and BOE, said O’Brien.

The proposed reorganizations are currently back in the workshop, and will likely be introduced at the next council meeting on Feb. 19 (on a Tuesday because of Presidents’ Day).

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posted by: 1644 on February 6, 2019  8:11am

(1) Isn’t representing Hamden’s interests in Hartford the primary job of Hamden’s state representatives and senators?  Why does Hamden need a city employee to do what its elected representatives are supposed to do?  BTW, Looney has done an excellent job in protecting state aid for Hamden: it has fared far better than most towns.  (I am not sure about Elliot, who seems to be focused on changed the world rather than protecting his town.)  Sean Scanlon, of Guilford, ran unopposed last election in large part because he communicated regularly with town officials and staff from Branford and Guilford, regardless of party.

posted by: AliceB on February 6, 2019  11:51am

1644, I totally agree with you. Our reps in Hartford were elected to look after our interests and they are paid to do so. 
Mayor Leng I am disappointed in you .  I thought you were different but I guess you are not.

posted by: BhuShu on February 6, 2019  6:34pm

I agree Mike D’Agostino and Looney are capable and should rep Hamden in fiscal needs. This is not the moment to start changing positions internally or adding higher paid salaries when we are all smarting from the continuous tax increases and mill rate hikes. Our homes are worthless
compared to other towns. Bring in big business. Create incubator spaces and lure start ups here, big tech companies, warehouses for amazon etc. where is the moxie???